WarGames: The Only Winning Move Is Still Not to Play

WarGames (1983)

WarGames is a late 20th century film that puts the lie to adults scoffing that teens care about nothing other than food, fooling around, and enjoying the latest pop culture fads. Surprise, surprise: teens don’t want to die in a nuclear holocaust either.

Teens are as capable of empathy, love, regret, guilt and fear as any adult — and the adult tendency to forget that is a failing with equal potential for a tragic outcome. When the tragic outcome includes the deaths of everyone they know and love, teens care with passion and energy that stuns. This is still true today. You can see it in the news and in the #Resist movement that began after the 2016 presidential election, so the film is a little prescient on that aspect. Unfortunately, adults dismissing teens and their concerns about the world they live in is  also true today — as seen by sneering comments about “selfies” and “Tumblrinas,”  so revisiting the lesson can’t come at a better time.

WarGames stars Matthew Broderick in his pre-Godzilla teen heartthrob phase, and Dabney Coleman.

The film begins with a couple of Air Force guys  turning out to be nuclear missile silo key guards, and when the order comes to fire the missiles, one of them breaks protocol. Once he has authenticated the codes, he still feels the need to be absolutely certain of what he has been ordered to do. After trying to get someone on the phone and failing, he can’t bring himself to turn his key, knowing he’s sentencing 20 million people to death. The other guy is unflinchingly with the program and pulls his service weapon.

We don’t get to see the outcome of this conflict right away, but as the scene changes we find out it was only a test. At NORAD, Dr. McKittrick (Coleman)  thinks 22% of men having the understandable human reaction of guilt and horror to the idea of firing nuclear weapons is an unacceptably high number. His suggestion is to take them out of the equation altogether and put a computer in to fire the missiles after confirming the launch codes. The computer he suggests is the WOPR (pronounced “whopper”).

In Washington state, we meet David Lightman (Broderick): a brainy but extremely bored high school student who does as most brainy but bored teen boys do: make jokes and fail his classes because he feels it’s not worth applying the effort.  He doesn’t stress his grades because the school administration writes down their password someplace he can easily access from the principal’s office — where he intentionally gets himself sent. The pretty popular girl whose giggles got him in trouble is named Jenny (Sheedy), and to impress her, David changes her bad grade along with his own.

David is a computer game geek as well, and an ad in a computer magazine sets the film in motion because he wants to play the new games before they’re released  at Christmas  the following year (entitled much, kid?). His first few tries with his dial up modem are frustratingly fruitless, but he eventually comes up with what he believes is paydirt. After consulting with computer tech friends who are genuine hackers with the paranoia to match (one of whom is played by Eddie Deen, the voice of Mandark from Dexter’s Laboratory) David researches the creator of the game so he can find the elusive back door into the company’s computer system. Along the way he discovers the game programmer was a pioneer of Artificial Intelligence; successfully making computer programs learn and improve from their experiences. Jennifer, curious and concerned as David blew off school to do this shows up in time to remark on the programmer’s dead child, inspiring David to try the kid’s name as a password and succeed.

Boys will be boys thoughtless and entitled, and war games are apparently way more interesting than poker, chess, or Falken’s Maze.

Boys will be boys thoughtless and entitled, and war games are apparently way more interesting than poker, chess, or Falken’s Maze. After making a reservation to fly to Paris to get Jenny’s interest, David moves onto the mysterious game company computer.  David finds a handful of games, completely glossing over that the artificial intelligence he’s talking to thinks he is its programmer. Looking them over, he decides to play the most interesting one after a list of more mundane games, GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR.

With no clue that he’s dialed into NORAD’s supercomputer, David fires up that game with the ominous name and decides to play as the Soviet Union. He and Jenny pick random targets like Las Vegas. When the targets he and Jenny playfully suggest turn up a day later on the news as a real life “exercise” David realizes something’s seriously wrong. In a panic he tosses (but doesn’t shred) all the evidence of his research and war-dialing.  The FBI shows up and the adventure begins, growing ever more serious by the second.

David quickly figures out that he didn’t dial into a game system but a simulator for the theater of war. Unfortunately, because of his prank to impress Jenny, it looks like he was trying to flee the country (even though no tickets were ever purchased), and the adults lock him up, refusing to listen to his desperate insistence that the computer is trying to complete the simulation in real life — and worse, that it doesn’t know the difference between a simulation and reality.  Since the adults have written him off, David has to race to stop the WOPR’s confused AI with no one but Jenny to help him.

WarGames (1983)
Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy in WarGames (1983)

The film’s secondary protagonist, Dr. Steven Falken (a polite homage to Stephen Hawking, played by John Wood), is living in seclusion under an assumed name. He became so disillusioned by the military’s insistence that there could be a winnable nuclear war that he gave up and walked away. He was so despondent after the loss of his wife and child that not only was he willing to let the military find, once and for all, that a nuclear war cannot be won, that he chose his new home specifically for its close proximity to ground zero for a major target city. He calmly informs David and Jennifer that they will all be painlessly vaporized at the moment of impact. He goes on to explain to the horrified teens that they’ll be the lucky ones. They won’t live with eyes burned out by the flash, left to wander blindly through a blasted landscape.

The teens are aghast at Falken’s cavalier attitude. Jenny plaintively tells Falken she’s only seventeen and not ready to die. David accuses Falken of having died along with his wife and child, and that he’s incapable of caring about anything anymore.

That barb strikes a chink in Falken’s armor, as he fires up his personal helicopter to take the kids back to Cheyenne Mountain with him so they can attempt to stop the computer before it succeeds in launching the nuclear weapons. We find that the computer’s design is the worst possible: if the WOPR loses power, it will interpret that as the destruction of Cheyenne Mountain and go ahead with the launch anyway.

The film is a double-edged warning against the dangers of artificial intelligence – which lacks the nuanced understanding of human emotion and the ability to learn more abstract lessons than the binary loss or win; and that very thing the AI didn’t grasp without David’s help: that there’s no way to win a nuclear war, given human casualties, pain and suffering.

The majority of the movie’s concepts hold up even though they’re obviously dated. Wardialers like the one David used in trying to break into the game company ProtoVision to get a preview of its new games system were in use at the time the film was made, although some of it was abbreviated for the sake of rule of cool. Although NORAD has never permitted visitors, the film’s depiction of the war room inspired the real NORAD to more thoroughly outfit its control center.  The climactic scene’s tension and suspense still holds up decades later.

One of the most commendable things about the film is that although it has an unwavering anti-nuclear war message, it uses almost no toxic masculinity in its portrayals. The airman with the crisis of conscience at the film’s opening is sweating bullets and by the end of his scene is quietly murmuring “I’m so sorry” over and over again to the people he envisions obliterating. David is awkward around the girl he’s come to like, rather than cool. When he realizes he’s in trouble, he panics and is neither embarrassed nor hesitant about asking Jenny for help when he thinks she can.  He cries out in desperate frustration because no one believes him. When McKittrick attempts to talk to David, he takes a fatherly approach. Berringer’s insistence that humans in the loop works well is proven true multiple times. He personally gets airmen on the phone during the second scare to be with them if they are about to be nuked to death.

I can’t say the same about the portrayal of women in the film. Jenny is a true 1980’s airhead for most of the film. In her opening scene she’s giggling and hair-flipping. She’s whispering but we never hear about what. She is impulsive and easily freaked out. David’s mother has a few lines, all hackneyed and forgettable. There’s a woman in the infirmary at NORAD whose sole purpose to the plot is to be sexually harassed by a soldier to indicate how distracted he is. To her credit, she doesn’t play nice and flat out tells him his lines are weak and she’s not impressed. There’s a woman in NORAD whose lines amount to “Hold the door! Hold the door! Hold the goddamn door!” and ramping up the suspense as she identifies each time WOPR gets a digit closer to the complete launch codes. Naturally the Bechdel test is a hard fail.

The United States now has a president who, during his campaign and since his election, has tweeted about nuclear war like it might be fun to see how it turns out.  This same president has a clear obsession with winning, but does not seem to have taken the lesson WarGames offers: that there is no winner in a nuclear war.

WarGames is light fare when it comes to anti-nuclear war films, but because it uses teenagers as its avatars it allowed a young generation in their coming of age years to take the message to heart that nuclear war is an unwinnable game, not worth playing. It alludes to the cost of human life lost, and the destruction of infrastructure people need to survive, and Broderick does a great job going from David’s sardonic boredom to his quiet terror as he realizes his innocent curiosity may lead to the end of the world. I was in my late teens when I saw it in the theater, and it has stayed with me as a favorite since.

Here it is, 2017, 34 years since this movie was in cinemas. The United States now has a president who, during his campaign and since his election, has tweeted about nuclear war like it might be fun to see how it turns out.  This same president has a clear obsession with winning, but does not seem to have taken the lesson WarGames offers: that there is no winner in a nuclear war.

So this movie, though dated, is timely. We need the reminder that there is no ideological or geographical disagreement worth taking the literal nuclear option. There is no conflict between our country or any other worth setting off a weapon that will kill millions and destroy the ability of the survivors to rebuild; will poison those survivors who didn’t die, and will drive them underground to eventually starve when nuclear winter sets in.

WarGames is on the gentle, soft side of anti-nuclear films. If you want a fluffy film that still drives the point home, this is it. If you want an escalating No Nukes Film Festival to show the family – start here and work your way up through Miracle Mile, The Day After, When the Wind Blows, Threads, and finish with Grave of the Fireflies.  Only the most soulless person could sit through that last one and still rationalize any good can come from a nuclear war.

This spring we’re looking back at the Cold War through games, movies, comics and books. Check out the rest of our series here.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed personal details of Jeffrey Jones’ life with that of Dabney Coleman. 

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Jamie Kingston

Jamie Kingston

Jamie Kingston is a Native New Yorker, enduring a transplant to Atlanta. She’s a lifelong comic fan, having started at age 13 and never looked back, developing a decades-spanning collection and the need to call out the creators when she expects better of them. Her devotion extends to television, films, and books as well as the rare cosplay. She sates her need to create in a number of ways including being an active editor on the TV Tropes website, creating art and fan art, and working on her randomly updating autobiographical web comic, Orchid Coloured Glasses. As a woman of color, she considers it important to focus on diversity issues in the media. She received the Harpy Agenda micro-grant in November of 2015 for exceptional comics journalism by a writer of color.